Issue 2, Fall 2008
Getting Schooled: VU undergrads teach creative writing, learn about educational inequity in Metro public schools
[Word.] is a self-governed student organization that offers month-long creative writing workshops in Metro public high schools. During class, teams of undergraduate facilitators use writing exercises, spoken word performance, song, and discussions of student and professional works to help students develop their intuitions about words and writing.
Outside of class, students prepare portfolios of poetry or fiction and e-mail drafts of their work to an undergraduate mentor who guides them through the writing process. The object of [Word.] is not to create polished writers. That is simply too large a task for four weeks. Rather, we encourage students to use their writing to communicate their thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
The project began after I transferred to Vanderbilt in fall 2006. A proud (but concerned) graduate of area public schools, I was well acquainted with the fact that, in the No Child Left Behind era, the aim of public ed is in many ways to standardize intellect. For reasons I will discuss later, students are rarely challenged to think critically, and independence is discouraged. This troubled me greatly as a student, but I did not realize how much of a problem this was until I arrived at college and was first challenged to think creatively.
Thomas Jefferson believed that public education was meant, “to enable every American to judge for themselves what will endanger or secure their liberties.” Jefferson urged his fellow lawmakers to “preach…a crusade against ignorance,” to divide every county into hundreds and establish a free school within each. However, it was some time before most Americans gained access to education.
Public education as we know it was a by- product of the Industrial Revolution. Whole- scale migration to urban centers and factory employment sounded the death knell for Jefferson’s agrarian republic; yet ironically, industrialization spurred massive investment in our educational infrastructure. Robber barons like John D. Rockefeller poured vast sums of money into public ed and involved themselves in the design of educational systems and curricula.
This was not philanthropy, but rather an investment in human capital. Complex machines required educated operators. But educated operators did not mean thinking operators, a distinction carefully drawn by the architects of our education system.
The industrialists needed workers who could perform repetitive tasks quickly, and who would not question the management. Thus, when Rockefeller formed his General Education Board—a board that would distribute some $300 million to districts around the country—to promote the cause of education, its view of public ed’s purpose differed somewhat from Jefferson’s.
Rockefeller said, “In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.” Many prominent educators—especially those who oversaw large public districts like those in Chicago or Boston—adopted Rockefeller’s philosophies.
Ellwood Cubberly, superintendent of San Diego Public Schools and later Dean of Stanford’s School of Education, is exemplary. One of the early twentieth century’s most respected educators, Cubblerly believed that “Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” The industrialists helped compulsory public education become reality, but in the process, their private ambitions subverted the values of our nation’s greatest public resource.
Can we claim that today’s schools teach Americans to “judge for themselves” by encouraging critical and independent thought? Or are we still churning out cogs for the great American machine? The industrialists’ design for public ed survives in today’s dominant pedagogical philosophies, which continue to stress intellectual conformity. Indeed, because policies like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) exhibit a singular focus on standardized tests and other dubious measures of “student achievement,” they have only intensified the problem.
There are hardworking, passionate teachers engaging students daily in Metro schools. However, because these teachers are rare, many students will encounter only one or two of them in thirteen years of compulsory schooling. Moreover, because NCLB ties school funding to performance on standardized tests, those teachers who do believe in Jefferson’s vision are often unable to realize it.
Unbound by NCLB and passionate about the potential of public ed, [Word.] works to achieve Jefferson’s vision in two ways. First, because we believe that words have an intrinsic power to affect great change, we encourage students to find and use their authentic voices. Second, because writing is a framework for critical thought, we teach students to “judge for themselves” the facts of their personal and social realities.
NCLB’s emphasis on testing may prohibit a teacher from introducing students to a poem like Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Tu Do Street.” But as non-school actors, we are able not only to use Komunyakaa to talk about segregation, re- segregation, and the legacy of racial inequality in a 90% black, 90% poverty rate school like Stratford, but also able to read and discuss students’ own works on the same issues. Last semester, we worked with approximately 160 students in four schools. This semester we expect to double those numbers. By helping our students realize the writer within them, we help them become powerful advocates for positive change in their schools and in their communities.